Robin Williams
Robin Williams

The death by suicide of actor-comedian Robin Williams will undoubtedly set loose a torrent of fond remembrances of the man and his comedy. His influence on the nation’s culture was certainly significant, and he had a large following of fans in the United States and around the world. He made people laugh, and they appreciated it greatly.

His manner of death fits with common cultural ideas about an alleged connection between genius and madness and notions of the underlying sadness often found in comedians. Williams’s struggle with addiction and reports of a lonely and unhappy childhood in a very wealthy family also accord with these stereotypes, but caution is surely in order in making such connections. Most obviously, tens of millions of other people have grown up with equally trying or even worse circumstances and have done just fine in psychological terms.

Williams’s highly publicized psychological problems and struggles with addiction may, however, have a real connection to his success. Clearly, he had a quick and agile mind and a talent for perceiving incongruities, which combined to make for his unique, frenetic style of performance in his individual, stand-up comedy act. He was able to translate some of that style to his comedic and serious acting roles, but these performances were really a different thing and the product of study and hard work.

Watching Williams at work, however, it was often difficult to overcome the uncomfortable feeling that one was witnessing manifestations of a serious case of bipolar disorder. (This was also true of Jonathan Winters, whom Williams long admired and who struggled with psychological problems.) Seeing the manic style of a Robin Williams performance, especially in his stand-up shows, it was easy to draw the conclusion that it wasn’t all a calculated act, scripted carefully over time, but indeed happening in real time and flowing from an overactive and quite possibly rather distressed mind. Audiences were surely impressed by the virtuosic nature of the performance; often, perhaps, more than they appreciated the actual jokes themselves, which frequently arrived at too fast a pace to be fully assimilated.

The humor, that is to say, was in part the incongruous spectacle of a human being jumping from thought to thought more quickly than seems normal or even possible.

Despite the potentially disturbing implications of his stand-up comedy persona, Williams became a big star in television and ultimately in theatrical films, transitioning to serious comic acting and then to dramatic roles. He had studied acting in his twenties, and his intelligence and hard work were evident in his accomplishments as a film actor, including four Academy Award nominations and a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Good Will Hunting.

During these years of huge success, he struggled with addiction and psychological problems, often checking into rehab clinics and going through two divorces. Simultaneously, he was known for great personal generosity, demonstrating the important difference between psychology and personal character−despite our specific personal struggles, individuals still have the power to make good choices and engage in benevolent acts. Williams was known for doing so, and his generosity in times of personal strife is exemplary.

The phenomenon of suicide is difficult to understand, given its enormity for the individual. My own view is that suicide is a response to a complete loss of hope, that an individual chooses to end his or her very existence upon concluding that things will never get better and life is thus, in their mind, not worth living. It is a perversely utilitarian act, flowing from a harsh calculation of the potential benefits and sorrows of continued existence. In that regard it is a phenomenon of truly monumental horror, as one considers the dehumanizing loss of perspective and the sense of the innate value of human life to which the individual’s travails and sadness have driven him or her.

The weight of the psychological problems a suicide such as Williams must have suffered is surely unimaginable to those of us fortunate not to have had to bear them. Some say laughter is the best medicine, but clearly it’s not enough, neither for the comic nor the audience. All of this suggests that there is much more to life than pleasure and pain, that in fact these experiences draw their significance and much of their power to affect us from something greater, something that stands outside of the individual. People suffering for a purpose tend not to lose hope, whereas people enjoying experiences without any purpose beyond their own pleasure often find themselves in torment.

The tragic end of Robin Williams should spur all those who witness it to take heed and seek that purpose outside themselves and live for that transcendent truth.